Sunday, January 21 , 2018, 9:38 am | Fair 50º

 
 
 
 
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Technology Transforms Direct Relief Operations But Not Its Mission

Goleta-based humanitarian aid organization has become one of the largest nonprofits in the United States since its founding in 1948

Direct Relief supplies are distributed across the globe, including in Jamaica.
Direct Relief supplies are distributed across the globe, including in Jamaica. (Direct Relief photo)

As a young lad, Franco Karzag remembers sorting cans of food, clothing and medical supplies before placing items into shoe boxes.

He was born in 1953, just five years after the founding of what’s now called Direct Relief, which back then was laying framework for the Goleta-based humanitarian nonprofit we know today.

His father Dennis Karczag — the family has since dropped the “c” — co-founded the nonprofit in the pantry of his Santa Barbara home with longtime friend William Zimdin.

A Hungarian-born migrant, Karczag had seen the disease-ridden labor camps in Europe during World War II. He’d known the kindness of volunteers bringing refugees food and blankets.

Humble only begins to describe Direct Relief’s early years, involving those shoe boxes, records kept in spiral notebooks and handwritten letters from individuals asking for help in eastern Europe, South America and Africa.

The wives of doctors from across the United States (who also happened to be pilots) would shuttle Direct Relief supplies to Santa Barbara Airport. Click to view larger
The wives of doctors from across the United States (who also happened to be pilots) would shuttle Direct Relief supplies to Santa Barbara Airport.  (Direct Relief photo)

Karczag was doing well as a commercial realtor with his own practice on Canon Perdido Street when the demand for Direct Relief’s services forced him to call a family meeting. 

He wanted to make Direct Relief his full-time job, and he wanted the blessing of his wife and five children.

“We’re going to have to give up all those things,” his son remembers Karczag saying of attending private schools and spending more freely. “We all voted that that’s what we wanted.”

A few decades later, Direct Relief has grown to the ninth largest nonprofit in the U.S., according to Forbes Magazine’s annual ranking of U.S. charities based on private support.

Direct Relief now uses aerial drones to evaluate how safe an area is for aid workers and shipments, Geographic Information System to accurately locate those in need and cryptocurrency to verify payments.

People can visually pinpoint Direct Relief’s global efforts on its site using Google Maps, and Direct Relief recently created a map to show which areas were more susceptible to suffer damage should a strong El Niño hit this winter. (Click here to view the map.)

“For me, it’s just been wild to see the growth through technology,” Franco Karzag told Noozhawk.

“It’s just amazing in the warehouse. It would be difficult without today’s technology to do what we do.”

Karzag has volunteered at Direct Relief during different times in his life, returning three years ago to work in operations and shipping/receiving in one of three overflowing warehouses.

After a lifetime behind computers and in offices, Karzag followed his dad’s advice — “To get to know the organization, you have to work in the warehouse.”

Direct Relief co-founder Dennis Karczag is pictured standing outside former nonprofit operations in downtown Santa Barbara. The organization has since moved into larger warehouses in Goleta, with plans to expand. Click to view larger
Direct Relief co-founder Dennis Karczag is pictured standing outside former nonprofit operations in downtown Santa Barbara. The organization has since moved into larger warehouses in Goleta, with plans to expand.  (Direct Relief photo)

And what a ways the nonprofit has come since the less-efficient days of gathering primarily food, clothing and money and taking it somewhere personally.

“There was no Fed Ex back then,” Karzag said.

The first supplies came from local markets and pharmacies, with subsequent shipments shuttled to Santa Barbara Airport by the wives of doctors from across the U.S., who just happened to be pilots.

Technology transforms Direct Relief operations, even in the last few years.

Orders used to come by letter, then phone and then email before Direct Relief developed an ordering system on its website.

Warehouse records were kept in QuickBooks, a small-business software, until a few years ago, said Dawn Long, the nonprofit’s director of technology.

The warehouse switched to a SAP system that gives real-time results for what’s coming into the warehouse when and what needs to go out.

Flat-screen TVs also show employees whether a warehouse is more than 80 percent full — the desired level, Long said.

“People didn’t understand how full the warehouse was,” she said. “Now we can track every bottle.”

Franco Karzag, son of Direct Relief co-founder, said volunteers have been the lifeblood of the nonprofit since 1948. Click to view larger
Franco Karzag, son of Direct Relief co-founder, said volunteers have been the lifeblood of the nonprofit since 1948.  (Direct Relief photo)

Long hopes that by 2016, warehouse staff will have headsets that would instruct workers exactly where to find an inventoried item via serial number.

Direct Relief is also planning to move into a larger warehouse in the next few years, relocating from 27 S. Patera Lane in Goleta down the road to a larger parcel of land formerly owned by the Santa Barbara Airport.

The organization that initially weathered financial trouble earned a  revenue of $892 million last fiscal year — nearly twice the $455 million Direct Relief received in 2014. 

Financial support from donors helped the organization deliver 1,837 tons, or 278 million defined daily doses, of requested medications and supplies to health centers and clinics in all 50 states and more than 70 countries worldwide, including responding to the Ebola crisis in West Africa and earthquakes in Nepal.

“I think Direct Relief is here to stay,” said Karzag, whose father passed away in 2000 at age 96.

“Direct Relief’s existence and growth and its ability to survive during the ’​50s, the ’​60s and the ’​70s was primarily due to the extraordinary volunteers. We are really fortunate today to be able to hire professionals. That’s been key to the growth and Direct Relief’s ability to be able to expand its operations.”

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Today, Direct Refief’s warehouses overflow with donated supplies for those in need. New technology has revamped the way goods come in and go out. Click to view larger
Today, Direct Refief’s warehouses overflow with donated supplies for those in need. New technology has revamped the way goods come in and go out.  (Direct Relief photo)
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